Israeli cave yields Stone Age kills

From Montreal, at a joint meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society and the Society for American Archaeology

In October 2000, workers blasting soil to widen a highway near Tel Aviv blew off the top a cave that had been covered by dirt for thousands of years.

Archaeologists called to the site determined that the cave contained Stone Age artifacts. A fence now surrounds the cave’s opening as excavation proceeds.

It’s lucky that the discovery, called Qesem Cave, didn’t become road kill. It contains some of the oldest and best-preserved evidence of hunting by our evolutionary ancestors in the span of time from around 300,000 to 200,000 years ago, says Mary C. Stiner of the University of Arizona in Tucson. Stiner is analyzing Qesem Cave finds with Avi Gopher and Ran Barkai, both of Tel Aviv University.

Abundant deer bones exhibiting butchery marks lie in sediment layers of the Israeli cave that also hold a mix of stone tools, including teardrop-shaped hand axes with sharpened edges. Age estimates for the bones rest on measurements of the proportion of specific uranium and thorium isotopes in them.

Deer remains at the site, which represent all parts of the animals’ bodies, came primarily from mature individuals that would have been of prime interest to Stone Age meat eaters, Stiner notes. Many of the bones display discoloration from burning.

The Qesem Cave bones contain many more butchery incisions than are typically seen on the bones of hunted animals at other Stone Age sites. “This was a heavy-handed way of dealing with carcasses,” Stiner says. “It implies a lack of caring about the fate of stone-tool edges.”

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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